Looking within to discover our leadership and activist styles


This is adapted from the book "The Heart of Sustainability" by Andrés Edwards .

What is our activist style? And what’s our leadership style? Discovering what activist and leadership style we are naturally drawn to is key to developing successful initiatives that are in alignment with our character and works effectively with our peers. This process involves understanding our temperament and identifying the right "fit."

Author Annie Leonard describes six types of activists:

1. investigators: those drawn to research and discovery;

2. communicators: those who explain, educate, and inform;

3. builders: those who create new systems, products, services, and approaches;

4. resisters: those who oppose the status quo or situations they deem detrimental;

5. nurturers: those who give and take care of others; and

6. networkers: those who can connect people and organizations for fruitful outcomes.

Many years ago, Woody Harrelson and a team of protesters scaled the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and unfurled a banner calling for a halt to harvesting redwood trees in Northern California. And more recently activists from Sea Shepherd disrupted Japanese whaling activities in the Antarctic — these actions are aligned with "resistors."

The annual Bioneers national conference and the Green Festivals bring together "networkers" from different sectors of the sustainability movement.

Then there are the scores of authors, journalists and members from non-profits that fulfill the role of "communicators," as well as scientists and researchers who play the role of "investigators."

Each of these types of activists are drawn to a particular form of activism based on their character and temperament.

In the leadership sector, Richard Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, authors of "Primal Leadership," describe six major styles of leadership:

visionary: moving people toward shared dreams;

coaching: aligning personal objectives with an organization’s goals;

affiliative: building camaraderie by connecting people to each other;

democratic: supporting people’s opinions and obtaining commitment through participation;

pacesetting: setting and meeting challenging goals;

commanding: being authoritative with clear direction in a crisis.


Similar to the types of activist styles, leadership styles are likely to be aligned with our own character and we’ll be naturally drawn to the style that fits our temperament.

Being a successful leader and activist, however, calls upon us to carefully determine the nature of the group that we are leading and adapt our style accordingly. If a group, for example, is eager to participate in the decision-making process, then a "democratic" leadership style is likely to be the best approach; if a group seems drawn to a common dream or an organization’s goals and objectives, then a "visionary" or "coaching" leadership style may be more appropriate.

In addition to Goleman’s leadership styles, Robert K. Greenleaf coined servant leadership which aims to seek the best in others. As Greenleaf says, "It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. … The best test ... is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

Rather than a top-down hierarchical structure, servant leadership supports human qualities that help us succeed as teams; these include: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, stewardship and helping to build community.

A servant leader’s job is to create the context for each individual on the team to reach his/her potential. Part of the servant leader’s skill involves identifying what each person on the team excels at and loves to do and then creating the conditions for him/her to make it happen. In this way the servant leader stays in the periphery and subtly guides each team member to do their very best.

Activism and leadership are closely aligned with character and temperament. Understanding how our personality fits with the various activist and leadership styles is essential for the success of our activist campaigns and leadership experiences. By taking a moment to look within, we benefit from seeing what type of activist and leadership styles best suits us. In this way, our positive impact spreads far when we take action and lead from the inside out.